Does Hunting Have Value Beyond the Rhetoric?


Before reading this piece, I ask that you consider that I am not a trained journalist like the one whose article has spurred me into action. As a professional hunter myself, my agenda is clear and open – I wish to see a future in which hunting remains one of the cornerstones of good conservation practice.

The moniker that hunters are merely “killers of wildlife” is one used only by what I refer to as the anti-conservation fraternity, with an obsession for driving an emotive rhetoric against hunting globally yet with a neocolonial twist. This obsession comes with great risk to wildlife and more importantly to habitat and people the world over. With habitat, wildlife can always make a comeback but without it, it is doomed!

Recently the anti-conservation drive has reached proportions that we have not seen before, a vitriolic attack on the hunting community, a community that works to support one of the most important aspects of planet earth’s wellbeing – the availability of truly wild habitats.

The so-called “extensive study” by Good Governance Africa and written by a certain Dr Ross Harvey, is not a true reflection of reality. Dr Harvey attempts to poke holes in the “economics” of hunting. I believe the information used in his study promotes an utterly false narrative and I would like to put some alternative perspectives forward.

When one looks at the benefit of something, one needs to take into account a holistic view of what “benefit” means. In other words, is the benefit specifically driven by one particular ingredient or is it made up of numerous ingredients? Hunting economics has become a very complex model – with the money involved being only a single ingredient of the total benefit.

Whereas most industries are generally about supply and demand, profit and loss, the hunting industry includes large intangible benefits like securing land use for wildlife, maintaining pristine natural habitats with their consequent positive impact on climate change, extremely low environmental footprint for an activity with comparatively high economic value and, of course the benefits to local communities and economies.

The “value” of trophy hunting with regard to monetary significance, according to Harvey, is apparently only 2 percentage points of the total tourism value for the year 2019. This statistic he uses to question the relevance of hunting in the greater scheme of things – but I would argue that such a “single ingredient” view ignores the other important elements of the total value that hunting contributes.

A more important statistic would be to recognize that 17.1 Million hectares of privately owned land, in South Africa alone, is maintained predominantly through hunting or hunting related activities. This figure is almost 2/3 more than the total of State owned protected land in South Africa. This volume of land is home to way more than the “emotion generated” species list that Harvey’s study focuses on, namely, elephant, leopard and rhino – a fact that he misses completely. Without hunting, what would happen to these 17.1 Million hectares of land and all of the animal species that survive there? Is the option of permanent land use change to agriculture or industry, and the loss of all of the wildlife and flora supported by those lands, really a better option than accepting the value of hunting in maintaining those wild habitats?

The reality is that the pure economics of hunting is merely a portion of what we need to take into consideration if we wish to decry hunting. Hunting is an activity which, even with an extremely low environmental footprint, generates sufficient economic benefit to remain viable. It is this combination of low environmental footprint and the securing of vast untouched land areas that gives hunting a unique place in the wildlife economy. With climate change shaping the future of our world, should we not be looking to ALL activities which offer a positive contribution?

So why does hunting play such a vital role in climate change? Hunting is the one activity that secures wildlife habitat in a manner that nothing else can. Contrary to what Harvey states, photographic safaris cannot be the only brick in the wall regarding the conservation of habitat – this is neither sustainable, nor positive, for the environment long term. There are very clear reasons for this and I would like to elaborate:

Photographic safaris, as they are commonly referred to, are conducted in areas that are suitable for such and must be a drawcard for international tourists. Tourists sadly do not come to Africa to see anything other than those species that are so often referred to as “iconic” – leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, giraffe. As for the rest, most have no clue as to what they are looking at, nor do they express any major interest in visiting areas that do not carry the iconic species. This is not a personal opinion; this is a hard fact!

When one breaks down the land mass of private ownership in South Africa, into what we will call “wildlife habitat”, there is a very small percentage that has the capacity to carry the “big five” that attracts foreign photographic tourist income. The reasons are simple, the home ranges of both lion and elephant exceed the size of most private properties in South Africa and without those two, most of that land mass has no photographic safari value. The remaining species simply don’t satisfy this form of tourism. With photographic safaris focused on the “iconic species”, the funding from such will never match the economic model that hunting economics provide, to maintain the end goal of habitat wellbeing for the security of ALL wildlife in that ecosystem.

Should hunting be stopped, the smaller “wildlife habitats”, which support a plethora of valuable fauna species, but not necessarily the “iconic species”, would have no alternative but to revert to alternate land use and most likely agriculture, the bane of climate change. All that will have been achieved through this very evil and false narrative against hunting, will be the total decimation of wild habitats – the greatest and single most important combatant against climate change.

Another very pertinent argument is the term that is used for photographic safaris as being “non consumptive”. This is a total myth and one that needs to be urgently debunked.

Hunting “consumes” scientifically proven off-takes in aged and genetically compromised animals – they are a known quantity, and they fall within a very tight protocol of control. Hunters do not trophy hunt for females nor immature animals. Quotas are assessed annually and there is no detrimental effect on species populations of that which are hunted.

As an example of a total hunting eco footprint, a typical hunting camp within the Greater Kruger area is a semi-permanent tented camp consisting of only 4 tents, a small kitchen, gas boilers and solar lighting. The entire hunting quota associated with that camp is taken off annually by roughly 40 hunters at an average bed night stay of 7 nights equating to a mere 280 bed nights. In addition, a maximum of 2 hunting vehicles are allowed per safari, traversing the entire land area, for this example, of roughly 532km2. There is no off-roading permitted, other than the recovery of hunted game.

By contrast, photographic tourism consumes in a very uncontrolled manner, especially the larger “commercial” lodges. Good Governance Africa report author, Dr Ross Harvey, states re hunting: “given that trophy hunting is an obvious form of exploitation that undermines ecosystem functionality and is hardly a requirement for human survival, its continuation should be plainly understood as a likely hindrance to conservation”. We should ask ourselves: is what takes place in certain photographic safari lodges not exploitation?

Photographic safari lodge eco footprints are extensive in comparison to their hunting operation counterparts. Staff to guest ratios are extremely high, motor vehicle traffic can be excessive, fossil fuel usage immense – not only does one have the usual “game viewers” out on safari every day, but the resupply of lodges, waste removal, services, maintenance etc. – all add to the overall environmental footprint. This impact has an effect on wildlife. It not only habituates wild animals, but it can have negative effects on wildlife populations especially the bombardment that predator sightings attract. Off-roading is commonplace and this has a negative effect on large amounts of fauna and flora, this all in the hope of a kill sighting or the search for an elusive leopard.

The water use in many photographic camps is something that few like to admit. It is astounding that no quotas are placed on ALL lodges in wilderness areas that are built in historically low rainfall areas. Photographic safari lodges today are, in many cases, trying to emulate “The Ritz” in the bush – infinity pools, private plunge pools per chalet, indoor showers, outdoor showers, and the wastage of millions of litres of a very precious commodity is criminal to say the least. The draining of subterranean water and the effect this has on flora and fauna is largely uncontrolled.

On the face of it, the economic contribution of photographic tourism looks impressive, until you do the math on bed nights vs contribution, and the negative impact that sort of human volume has on wilderness areas. One particular study I made on some reserves in South Africa showed that, during the 2018/2020 seasons, the combined photographic tourist occupancy amounted to 127091 bed nights and the funding contribution to game reserve levies was R29,123,504-00. This amounts to a paltry sum of R229-00 ($16) per bed night! This is quite a revealing figure when one considers the cost implications of a visit to many of these lodges! Yet Harvey refers to hunters as the exploiters? During the same period the hunting bed nights for the same regions were 560 at a contribution of R12,438,101-00 or R22,210-00 ($1531) per bed night! All that with little human volume and extremely low eco impact.

The other interesting observation was that during the peak of Covid, the photographic contribution in these same reserves dropped to less than 14% of income contributed during the high of the 2019/2020 season, yet the hunting contribution was still at over 60% for the same period. Had the hunting not been there to contribute, these particular areas would have had to retrench a vast amount of staff – fortunately this was not the case. Although the hunting contribution may not have been “high” in the overall annual tourism picture, it was critical to staff job security, their families and all the management and anti-poaching operations for those reserves.

Whilst some may say that my observations here are unfairly calling out the photographic safari sector, my intention is to highlight that any human activity in wilderness areas has an impact. The impacts of my industry are claimed by the anti-conservation community, with nauseating repetition, as being unsustainable, whilst the photographic safari industry is painted as blameless in their activity – this false narrative is far from the truth and warrants being highlighted. I would go so far as to say that, allowed to continue unchecked, the photographic safari industry is far less sustainable than the hunting sector.

Of equal concern to me is that a repeated “passing shot” is always levelled at the reserves that form part of the Greater Kruger National Park by the “anti-conservationists” who write with so much claimed knowledge about my industry. One very irritating falsehood is the claim that these reserves are hunting Kruger Park animals. This is not only a half truth, but also a threat once again to all wildlife in that geographical region. Whilst it is true that the boundary to the private reserves, that form a part of the Greater Kruger, is an open system with the Kruger National Park itself, it is NOT true that any of those reserves are hunting Kruger Park animals. Prior to the dropping of fences, the private reserves, which border the Kruger, had large numbers of all of the wild animals that still occur in the open system today. In fact, census records show that during the 2 years after the dropping of the fences, game densities in the private reserves initially fell. Researchers attributed this to the fact that animals from the private reserves had moved into the more sparsely populated national park – if anything the Kruger inherited animals from the private reserves and not the other way around.

In any event, private owners agreed to forfeit any commercial gain on their land by combining with the Kruger National Park. Today, no landowner may hunt commercially and yet not all land ownership comes with the right to build lodges and run commercial photographic camps – for that we can be grateful, for God forbid that such is the only future for those reserves.

Prior to the formation of the private reserves in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the persecution of predators was immense, thousands of lion died at the hands of cattle farmers, not to mention hyena, leopard, wild dog etc. The formation of the private reserves removed the agricultural history that was so devastating to wildlife and habitat. Today the private reserves create a much-valued buffer between the Kruger National Park and the populated areas of Limpopo and Mpumulanga. They serve as a deterrent, by preventing poachers trying to enter the Kruger where it borders the private reserves and this through privately funded anti-poaching units and no assistance from government funding.

The inclusion of the private reserves into an open system with Kruger added almost 10% land mass to the Kruger National Park – that is 10% more habitat for wild animals to roam free. Today those reserves should be embraced for the massive contribution that they make to the South African landscape that in turn is so valuable to the planet’s health.

Should the current moratorium on permits for elephant, leopard and black rhino be upheld, areas like these will no longer be able to sustain the managerial costs that are required. There will be three options:

1. Increase the photographic lodge method and collect more levies – this is a very dangerous precedent and one that will eventually “lodge over-populate” the reserves and remove in entirety the reason people visit these pristine habitats. The creation of another Madikwe, is enough to make one’s stomach turn.

2. Request levies directly from the landowners – this will be hard ask, as return on such levies is only through the eventual sale of such land.

3. Revert to the old fences between the private reserves and Kruger National Park, fragmenting the once open landscape and recreating the ecological disaster that the old veterinary fence of the 1960’s caused – what a gut wrenchingly sad day that would be!

Whilst I cannot hope to swing the opinion of those entrenched in the anti-conservation groups, I appeal to the thinking reader to consider that hunting and photographic safaris both have a place in conservation. I encourage those, who are willing to consider it, to support a blend of both industries, to allow them to continue in the successful vein that has been so good for so long. South Africa, and in particular the reserves of the Greater Kruger, are the showpiece to the greater world of how both can work side by side and build what is arguably the finest model in Africa. Together we can both be bricks in the wall of conservation. Let us work together, understand our differences, respect them and unite for the common cause, which we all know is the security of our wilderness and habitats for future generations. We all have a common wish – to ensure that we have a climate in which sunsets can still be rewarded for those that love Africa.

Paul Stones (professional hunter ) “The systematic demise of hunting, will be the absolute demise of African wildlife”